Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives

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One of the nation's first woman writers, literary pioneer Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) is ranked with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant as a founder of American literature. In a career that spanned four decades before the Civil War, Sedgwick published six novels, including Hope Leslie and A New-England Tale, and over one hundred short stories and sketches, as well as domestic novellas, travelogues, and books for children.

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Overview

One of the nation's first woman writers, literary pioneer Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) is ranked with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant as a founder of American literature. In a career that spanned four decades before the Civil War, Sedgwick published six novels, including Hope Leslie and A New-England Tale, and over one hundred short stories and sketches, as well as domestic novellas, travelogues, and books for children.

Now the full breadth and complexity of Sedgwick's extensive oeuvre is examined for the first time in this groundbreaking volume, which pairs nineteenth-century reviews of her writings with new critical essays on her works. The collection illuminates Sedgwick's skillful use of rhetoric, her feminism, her realism, her reform activities, as well as her central role in shaping the nation's literature.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555535483
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 12/5/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.18 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Lucinda Damon-Bach is Assistant Professor of English at Salem State College. Victoria Clements is Professor of English at the College of Southern Maryland.

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Catharine Maria Sedgwick

CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES

NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2003 Lucinda L. Damon-Bach and Victoria Clements
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1555535488


Chapter One

Catharine Maria Sedgwick in Literary History

CAROLYN L. KARCHER

The recovery of Catharine Maria Sedgwick's oeuvre that this ambitious collection of essays promotes simultaneously forces a radical reconceptualization of American literary history. As scholars acquaint themselves with A New-England Tale (1822.), Redwood (1824), Clarence (1830), The Linwoods (1835), Tales and Sketches (1: 1835, 2: 1844), and Married or Single? (1857), Sedgwick emerges as much more than a major contributor to the dominant genres of the 1820s-the frontier romance and the historical novel-a status she has secured since the republication of Hope Leslie. Thanks to the survey of her corpus the editors of the present volume have compiled, we can now recognize Sedgwick as the founder of a homegrown novel of manners tradition that American literature has long been erroneously supposed to lack; a pioneer in the development of realism, which has customarily been dated after the Civil War and credited to male writers; a prolific and trendsetting author of short fiction; and even, as Patricia Kalayjian's essay on Clarence demonstrates, an early architect of the urban novel that Howells, Crane, Dreiser,and Wharton would later perfect.

Restoring Sedgwick to her rightful place in American literary history thus requires challenging paradigms that have obscured both the genres she helped shape and the direct and indirect influence she exerted on her contemporaries and successors. Three paradigms have maintained an especially tenacious hold on scholars: those of the romance, the sentimental novel, and the scribbling woman. They can be summarized as follows. First, American writers have persistently shied away from the realistic depiction of society, preferring to work in the mode of what Nathaniel Hawthorne called the romance-a mode best suited to probing the individual psyche. Second, nineteenth-century American fiction can be divided into serious novels produced by men and sentimental novels produced by women, the former addressing significant human issues and occasionally articulating social or political insights, the latter limited to retailing the trivia of the domestic sphere. Third, men's fiction alone displays self-conscious artistry and formal innovation, while women's fiction endlessly duplicates formulaic plots; hence, new literary trends (such as the shift from romanticism to realism) can only be discerned by studying male writers.

Of these paradigms, none has more completely marginalized Sedgwick and the school of women writers she started than that of the romance, as the critic Richard Chase has defined it. Chase identifies the romance as the "most original and characteristic form" of the American novel, locating its Americanness in its departures from the British and European novel. Unlike the novel, he contends, the romance disregards the "requirements of verisimilitude, development, and continuity" and "ignore[s] the spectacle of man in society." Whereas the "novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail," the romance, according to Chase, "veer[s] toward mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic" representations. Similarly, whereas the novel emphasizes "character" over "action and plot" and sets characters in "explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past," the romance subordinates character to action, treats characters as "two-dimensional types ... not ... complexly related to each other or to society or to the past," and abstracts them so entirely from their milieu that it does "not matter much what class people come from."

Sedgwick's works contradict Chase's premises point by point. The very title of her first novel-A New-England Tale; or, Sketches of New-England Character and Manners-announces at the outset that delineating the character and manners of a particular society is Sedgwick's primary concern, and the opening sentence of her preface specifies that she intends thereby "to add something to the scanty stock of native American literature." For Sedgwick, in other words, the project of Americanizing the novel and adapting it to the creation of a "native" literature distinct from its British and European models does not involve transforming the novel into the romance; instead, it involves limning daily life in her own country with close attention to the values, mores, and social gradations that differentiate her compatriots from other peoples.

Thus, in A New-England Tale, Sedgwick situates her heroine Jane Elton in a village whose class structure consists of well-to-do merchants and landowners, clergymen, teachers, small farmers, domestic servants, and outcasts, but she also shows that in contrast to the old world's class structure, this one is unstable and mutable, making it an unreliable foundation on which to build Jane's future. Jane's father, "formerly a flourishing trader" (NET, 9), dies bankrupt by the third page of the novel, and her dissipated cousin David Wilson wastes his fortune and turns highwayman in the end. Jane herself occupies three different class positions over the course of the novel, sinking from her parents' elite status to servitude in her Aunt Wilson's household, climbing back into middle-class respectability as a self-supporting schoolteacher, and finally regaining her original rank by marrying the wealthy philanthropist Robert Lloyd, who has bought her father's home.

Although Sedgwick carefully maps her characters' class relations, she centers her "sketches" of a New England village on the role religion plays in molding their "manners"-a role she observes from her perspective as a recent convert from Calvinism to Unitarianism. Through her portrayals of Jane's Calvinist relatives and their minister, Sedgwick presents a blistering exposé of the evils Calvinist theology begets: an obsession with "sound doctrine" at the expense of "benevolent practice"; a mean-spiritedness masked by ostentatious contributions to tract societies, foreign missions, and programs for evangelizing "the Cherokees, or Osages"; and a ban on "appropriate pleasures" that drives church members into "sins of a much deeper die" (NET, 13, 23, 47). Through her contrasting portrayals of the Quaker Robert Lloyd and the Methodist servant Mary Hull, Sedgwick illustrates the spirit of true religion-a spirit that transcends sectarian barriers and manifests itself in ethical behavior and faith in a loving God. Lloyd and his family live "after the plain way of their sect; not indulging in costly dress or furniture, but regulating all their expenses by a just and careful economy" and devoting their savings to charity (NET, 27). Their lower-class counterpart Mary Hull, who possesses such "virtues of her station" as "practical good sense, industrious, efficient habits," and tact in her interactions with social superiors, teaches Jane to submit humbly to her servitude and to rely on God for consolation (NET, 12, 20).

Sedgwick's realistic rendition of New England character and manners Americanizes the British novel in a double sense. Not only does it illuminate the class mobility, religious fluidity, and democratizing tendency that set American society apart from old-world analogues, but it turns conventions that had previously served to reinforce class hierarchies into vehicles for inculcating republican virtues and nonsectarian Christian principles. Sedgwick's achievement stands out even more clearly in the light of British literary history, for she began writing only a decade after Jane Austen, when the novel of manners was still young.

Because of her commitment to accurate representation of her society, the novel of manners, as Sedgwick developed it, can also be seen as lying at the origins of American literary realism. A New-England Tale inaugurates the mode of women's regional fiction that Judith Fetterley, Joanne Dobson, and Joan Hedrick, among others, have cited as a far earlier source of realism than the works of William Dean Howells and the European writers from whom he drew inspiration.

Just as Sedgwick's oeuvre refutes the claim that the romance ranks as the "most original and characteristic form" of the American novel, so the social and political criticism she weaves into all her works, beginning with A New-England Tale, dispels the belief that women confined themselves to writing about trivial domestic matters, leaving the province of serious fiction to men. Although feminist critics like Nina Baym, Jane Tompkins, and Joanne Dobson have eloquently defended the sentimental novel against its detractors, demonstrating that it performed the serious "cultural work" of fostering an ethos of "human connection" as a corrective to American society's selfish individualism, they have not challenged the gendered division of American fiction that the paradigm of the sentimental novel furthers. By concentrating on the sentimental novel, moreover, feminist critics have inadvertently perpetuated the notion that nineteenth-century women wrote primarily in that genre. I have already suggested that Sedgwick can better be appreciated as a novelist of manners and a pioneering realist. Here I would like to propose that we also consider her an early political novelist.

Critics now universally acknowledge the political dimensions of Hope Leslie as a novel that rewrites the history of the Pequot War and engages ongoing debates over Indian Removal. In her essay for this volume, Susan Harris argues that A New England-Tale, Redwood, Clarence, and The Linwoods can likewise be considered political novels in that they grapple with the questions, "What are the limits to legitimate authority? When is it appropriate to defy king, magistrate, father?" Redwood, however, still awaits recognition as the first novel to tackle the issue of slavery.

Published four years after the Missouri Crisis of 1819-20 raised the specter of an internecine war between North and South, Redwood explores scenarios for peacefully ending the "curse of slavery" that Harriet Beecher Stowe would later entertain in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred. In an episode foreshadowing the martyrdom of Uncle Tom, the slave Africk, beaten to death for shielding a slave woman from a whipping, exhorts a sympathetic young slaveholder with his last breath: "Do not pray for me, nor for mine.... But pray for your father's land, and your father's children.... I hear the cry of revenge; I hear the wailings of your wives and your little ones; and I see your fair lands drenched with their blood. Pray to God to save you in that day, for it will surely come" (R, 1:56). This slaveholder subsequently emancipates his slaves after preparing them for freedom, and his son then sells the plantation and uses its proceeds to train himself for a profession from which he can earn his own living. In another episode that anticipates the increasing resistance of Northern citizens to turning in fugitive slaves, a slave taken north by her owner escapes to Massachusetts, where "the white inhabitants would be very backward to enforce her master's rights" (R, 2:271). The main solution Redwood offers to the problem of ending slavery without causing civil war, however-the regeneration of the South by a patiently forbearing North and the ultimate reconciliation of the two regions-is implied by the novel's symbolic ending. As the "infidel" planter Henry Redwood, a precursor of Stowe's Augustine St. Clare, sees the contrasting effects of a Southern and a Northern upbringing on his daughters Caroline and Ellen-the former a spoiled belle reared in South Carolina, the latter a self-reliant and principled young woman reared among New England farmers after her deserted mother's death-he repents of his errant ways. Meanwhile, Ellen's generous renunciation of her rightful share of the Redwood fortune wins over the hostile Caroline, and when Caroline dies prematurely, Ellen not only receives her full inheritance, but gives her sister's child the benefit of the New England education responsible for her own virtues. A prime example of how "Sedgwick uses family and social relationships as models for political relationships" (to quote Susan Harris again), Redwood thus intervenes in the controversy over slavery much the way Hope Leslie does in the controversy over the Indian question.

One reason critics have failed to give Redwood its due as an antecedent of the antislavery novel is that Sedgwick, unlike her friend Lydia Maria Child and her successor Stowe, never joined the abolitionist movement, despite her strong sympathy for the slaves and her family's championship of their cause. In her fascinating essay on Sedgwick's abandoned antislavery manuscript, which she finds to be "one of the earliest examples of antislavery fiction," Karen Woods Weierman hypothesizes that Sedgwick refused to align herself with the abolitionists because she feared their uncompromising stand would destroy the Union (see chapter 7 in this volume). This explanation accords with Sedgwick's emphasis on reconciliation in Redwood. Yet notwithstanding Sedgwick's inability to move beyond the political position she staked out in 1824-a position radical for its day, though conservative by the time Child published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833-Redwood provided Child and Stowe with an empowering model for their own political fiction.

Sedgwick's novels deserve critical reassessment not just for their compelling dramatization of key national problems, but for their artistry, as Judith Fetterley underscores. Indeed, the praise Sedgwick received from her contemporaries clearly indicates that unlike the twentieth-century architects of the American literary canon, nineteenth-century readers of both sexes fully appreciated her artistry and ranked her with her leading male peers. Edgar Allan Poe eulogized Sedgwick as "one of our most celebrated and most meritorious writers." Hawthorne paid tribute to Sedgwick's realism by commending her as "our most truthful novelist." Rufus Griswold's landmark anthology, The Prose Writers of America, pronounced her "delineations of New England manners ... decidedly the best that have appeared." William Cullen Bryant, Lydia Maria Child, and John S. Hart, editor of The Female Prose Writers of America, all acclaimed Sedgwick's "skill in the drawing of characters," her "close observation" of human psychology, and her success at capturing "minutely individual" traits. Readers also singled out favorite characters for special mention. The British novelist Maria Edgeworth, for example, particularly admired the six-foot-tall spinster, Aunt Deborah Lenox, who peppers Redwood with her sententious wisdom.

Continue...


Excerpted from Catharine Maria Sedgwick Copyright © 2003 by Lucinda L. Damon-Bach and Victoria Clements
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword
Acknowledgments
Introduction
Chronology of Sedgwick's Life and Work
Excerpts form Early Overviews of Sedgwick's Career 3
1 Catharine Maria Sedgwick in Literary History 5
Excerpts from Biographical Sketches 17
2 Behind the Veil? Catharine Sedgwick and Anonymous Publication 19
Excerpts from Reviews of A New-England Tale; or, Sketches of New-England Character and Manners 37
3 "A Powerful and Thrilling Voice": The Significance of Crazy Bet 40
Excerpts from Reviews of Redwood: A Tale 53
4 To "Act" and "Transact": Redwood's Revisionary Heroines 56
Excerpts from Reviews of Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts 75
5 "My Sister! My Sister!": The Rhetoric of Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie 78
Excerpts from Reviews of Clarence; or, A Tale of Our Own Times 101
6 Disinterest as Moral Corrective in Clarence's Cultural Critique 104
Excerpt from Sedgwick's Unfinished Antislavery Manuscript 119
7 "A Slave Story I Began and Abandoned": Sedgwick's Antislavery Manuscript 122
Excerpts from Reviews of The Linwoods; or, "Sixty Years Since" in America 141
8 Mischief, Insanity, Memetics, and Agency in The Linwoods; or, "Sixty Years Since" in America 144
Excerpts from Reviews of Tales and Sketches 155
9 The Collection as Literary Form: Sedgwick's Tales and Sketches of 1835 158
Excerpts from Reviews of Home, The Poor Rich Man and the Rich Poor Man, and Live and Let Live 171
10 Sedgwick's American Poor 174
Excerpts from Reviews of Means and Ends, or Self-Training 189
11 Catharine Sedgwick and the "Art" of Conversation 192
Excerpts form Reviews of Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home 209
12 Tourism and Visual Subjection in Letters from Abroad and "An Incident at Rome" 212
Letters and a Sketch of Sedgwick's Prison Work 231
13 "From Home to Home": Sedgwick's Study of Deviance 234
Excerpts from Reviews of Married or Single? 249
14 "Equal to Either Fortune": Sedgwick's Married or Single? and Feminism 252
Excerpts from Reviews Addressing Sedgwick's Politics 269
15 The Limits of Authority: Catharine Maria Sedgwick and the Politics of Resistance 272
16 Rediscovery 286
Chronological Bibliography of the Works of Catharine Maria Sedgwick 295
Notes on Contributors 315
Index 319
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